Disaggregating The Data of MENA Communities is Essential to Good Public Policy. It’s time to Count MENA In.

By Jessica González-Rojas and Dr. Ayman El-Mohandes | June 4, 2024

Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) residents of New York State are virtually unidentifiable in state-collected data, rendering these populations uniquely disenfranchised, invisible, and underserved. The MENA community is a diverse population with distinct cultural, ethnic, and social needs both within the population and as compared to people in other racial/ethnic categories. The current estimate of the size of this population in New York is half a million but it may be much higher depending on which ethnicities and cultures would be included. We do not know how many people would self-identify under this category once it is an option, but we know it is important to collect this information. By now, our state institutions and organizations that serve marginalized communities acknowledge the importance of correctly collecting demographic data to understand and serve the multitude of communities that make up New York State. The legislature demonstrated this by passing legislation in 2021 that disaggregated the data of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) New Yorkers, which Governor Hochul signed into law. When marginalized populations are unfairly ignored or completely and inaccurately subsumed under broader classifications because of our data collection limitations or historical frameworks that were based on bias, our government virtually mutes, intentionally or unintentionally, the voices of an important and vibrant subset of New Yorkers.

Under current state data collection methods, MENA populations are forced to check the “White” box even though many do not identify as White, ethnically or culturally, which erases their lived experiences and prevents critical resources and health services from being distributed appropriately. MENA community members have vocalized the need to be counted accurately, which is why legislation was introduced to disaggregate the data of these New Yorkers across state agencies. They are a multilingual and multicultural group that is bound by many important commonalities that distinguish them from what is categorized generally as White. Opposition to disaggregated data is not only a demonstration of cultural bias but also a residual manifestation of discrimination. There is no negative in this bill for any population or community. Instead, it supports diversity, democracy, and better overall health outcomes for our state.

MENA communities encounter real-life challenges and barriers to resources because data is not disaggregated. By including them within the much larger White categorization, the extent of health risks they encounter, and resulting poor health outcomes specific to this group, are diluted and often missed. Beyond limited access to economic advancement resources and aid, MENA communities currently face higher rates of housing insecurity, poverty, domestic abuse, and health disparities that go unaddressed. This lack of services can also be traced to how our state inefficiently collects data on these communities.

In response to world events, individuals from many MENA countries are more likely to face xenophobia, racism, and religious discrimination making them less safe and creating measurable inequities pertaining to health care, including mental health care, and other services. Racism in many forms is manifest systematically throughout the health care and other systems and this type of discrimination is difficult to track and correct when data is unavailable.

The current catch-all term “White” is rooted in a federal legal ruling established in 1944 which deemed all persons from the MENA region, regardless of their country of origin, religion, language, culture, or ethnicity, “White by law”. As a result of this, MENA communities throughout New York State, including in Little Yemen in the Bronx and Little Egypt in Queens are inappropriately identified as White in government data and essentially ignored. The MENA bill requires that every state agency, board, department, or commission that directly collects demographic data regarding ancestry or ethnic origin rightfully disaggregate Middle Eastern or North African populations from the white demographic, or collect separate data on each major Middle Eastern or North African group.

The legislation has passed the State Senate and Assembly. We urge Governor Hochul to sign it immediately into law to bring visibility to this population.

Jessica González-Rojas is the Assembly Member for the 34th District, which encompasses the neighborhoods of Astoria, Corona, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Woodside and prime sponsor of the MENA bill. Dr. Ayman El-Mohandes is Dean and Professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.